Democrat under attack over southern vote plea

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The Democratic frontrunner in next November's US presidential election has come under attack from his rivals after appealing to "pick-up truck" drivers in the southern states who wave the Confederate flag, a symbol of racial division.

Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, who is pegged in the polls as the most likely of nine candidates to win the Democrat nomination, was quoted in an Iowa newspaper on Saturday as wanting to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks".

The purpose of the remark was to underpin the notion, often repeated by Mr Dean, that the only way to vanquish President George Bush next year is to build a campaign that wins over all types of Democrats. In recent years, many conservative, white Democrats in the south have defected to the Republicans. "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section," Mr Dean said in the interview.

But his comments drew fire from the other Democrat runners. First to respond was Richard Gephardt, the former leader of the House of Representatives, who is neck and neck with Mr Dean in Iowa, the first state to choose among Democrats in state-wide caucuses on 19 February. New Hampshire will hold a fully-fledged primary election soon afterwards.

"I don't want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks," Mr Gephardt said. "I will win the Democratic nomination because I will be the candidate for guys with American flags in their pick-up trucks."

The closest challenger to Mr Dean in New Hampshire is Senator John Kerry from Massachusetts. He argued that Mr Dean wanted to "pander to lovers of the Confederate flag" to win over the National Rifle Association, which is fighting to stifle the gun-control debate.